SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean police said Tuesday they had found the body of fugitive business tycoon Yoo Byung-Eun, the target of a months-long manhunt connected to April's Sewol ferry disaster that claimed around 300 lives.
The heavily decomposed corpse of the 73-year-old Yoo was discovered on June 12 lying on the ground in a plum orchard in Suncheon, a city 300km south of Seoul.
Suncheon police chief Woo Hyung-Ho told reporters that the body was too decomposed to ascertain the cause of death, although several empty bottles of alcohol were found at the scene.
"We do not know yet whether it was a homicide or a suicide," Woo said.
"We are hoping that more detailed forensic analysis will shed light on this and on the exact time of death," he added.
Yoo was the patriarch of the family behind Chonghaejin Marine Co., which owned and operated the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16 with 476 people on board, including 325 high school children. The number of confirmed dead currently stands at 294, with 10 victims still unaccounted for.
The disaster stunned South Korea, knocking the entire country off its stride and triggering public outrage as it emerged that incompetence, corruption and greed had all contributed to the scale of the disaster.
A summons was issued for Yoo shortly after the sinking, but he refused to surrender to police and eventually went on the run. A reward of 500 million won (S$603,438) was offered for information leading to his capture, and 100 million won for that of his eldest son, Yoo Dae-Kyun.
Yoo was wanted for questioning on possible charges of embezzlement and criminal negligence, related to regulatory violations.
The body found in Suncheon was almost unrecognisable, and the possibility it might be Yoo emerged only after a DNA sample matched that of the reclusive billionaire's brother.
Woo said forensic experts eventually managed to lift a print from one of the body's index fingers which confirmed Yoo's identity.
"A toxicology test is being carried out," Woo said.
The body was found lying face up and clothed in a winter jacket. It was brought to Seoul on Tuesday for further forensic analysis.
Yoo had been the target of a massive nationwide man-hunt, involving tens of thousands of police officers and military troops. Many of his family members have been arrested, including his wife and his brother. A daughter is fighting an extradition bid from Paris.
Earlier this month, South Korean prosecutors filed embezzlement charges against his 71-year-old wife, Kwon Yun-Ja. The charges were unrelated to the ferry sinking, and involved the alleged embezzlement of money from a splinter religious group established by Kwon's father.
In June, thousands of police officers conducted a raid on a major church complex looking for Yoo. The captain and 14 surviving crew members of the Sewol are currently on trial, some of them on charges of wilful homicide which carry the death penalty.